The reputation of the Himalayas preceded it. The timeless allure that drew so many others before me to gaze upon these mountains proved to be all consuming, even obsession provoking. I had finally left behind the mass ferment of markets and the rumble of traffic. I welcomed the sudden pouring rain that turned the trail into a snaking mud pit on the last 600 vertical meters up to Namche. The smell of ozone enhanced the aromatics of blue pine and rhododendron canopy while droplets on my eyelids forced nearsightedness. In the eight hours of ascent from Lukla, satisfied only by enveloping further into the hinterland, I took no rests. Gliding through the forest came naturally, and there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be.
Brave and foolish are so often synonymous. A big, bulky map was stashed in the side pocket of my pack. But, in moving at a blistering pace, nearly all logistical questions remained unanswered. In the days ahead, there were some real concerns: (1) getting lost and (2) acute mountain sickness (AMS). The former was more outside my control, largely dependent on inclement weather, and in some cases triggered by the latter; and therefore, the risks posed by AMS were more pertinent. I recalled, a few years ago upon waking blind at my campsite, I climbed to the summit of Grays and Torreys peaks unable to tell apart a human from a rock a foot away. At the time, never mind the obvious sign to not climb mountains, I chalked the blindness to falling asleep in contacts —a ridiculous diagnosis. Now, that distant memory serves as a reminder that another known symptom of AMS is irrational behavior.
In the creeping déjà vu, having trampled over a fair share of disparate heaps of dirt, I found myself similarly blind. Being prepared is a luxury I lack; unsurprisingly, making the most of days usually doesn’t mean shutting myself in to do comprehensive research. This loop in the Higher Himalayas was to traverse three high mountain passes (Kongma La 18,159 feet, Cho La 17,782 feet, and Renjo La 17,585 feet) and two significant glaciers (the Khumbu and Ngozumpa). Though the entire trek would take longer, at least 10 entire days would be spent well above 14,000 feet lugging 25 pounds up and down. And with that, I knew enough that I didn’t know enough to avoid misfortune. If the situation was to suddenly become dire in this remote wilderness, the exit hinging on a whole lot of luck would be via paramedic evacuation on a helicopter or literally being carried down like a sack of potatoes.
I wondered if it was ludicrous to think that now, given how determined I was to complete this loop, I could be trusted to make sound judgement calls. The Three Passes trek was one of the few things I had dreamed of when considering taking a year abroad. Would I have the willpower to let myself down again after months of tabling this dream if physical limitations proved that doing so was in my best interest? I didn’t want to replay the scenario of crawling out of the Malaysian jungle with a freshly, fractured foot in this far less forgiving environment. Still, with every setback that had pushed this trek further in time, the more this became a personal challenge, a test to overcome. Now, what red flags would I be willing to ignore? How close to the edge would I go to do this purely to prove I could?
Nonetheless, while the apprehension humbled me, the first days were idyllic. At sub 12,000 feet, oxygen was thin but had not disappeared. I rested up and waited for a reasonable degree of acclimatization. I wanted to do this myself, so I didn’t hire a guide. But, one night, I did strike up a conversation with some Sherpa on dinner break from their middle-aged clients who were all huddled around the panoramic windows of the tea house taking selfies with the massive face of Kongde Ri. The Sherpa reaffirmed that I could try the passes though nothing ever was guaranteed.
From another, I heard word of a trekker and guide duo who recently went missing in the Cho La Pass when the weather changed rapidly and buried them in an impassable snowstorm. The news was unsettling. I tried not to be hung up. There was nothing I could do, and the Cho La Pass was still more than a week away. It was also New Year’s Eve 2075.
Nepal runs on the Bikram Samvat calendar. Tenzing Sherpa, descendant of the Tenzing Norgay who made the first ever summit of Everest, had thrown a small gathering. He ran over to his grandmother’s house adjacent and came back with a jug of her homemade Chhaang, a fermented rice brew, to ring in the new year. It didn’t take much before Ben, whom I first met on the plane to Lukla and now reunited here in Namche, insisted on turning the small gathering into a dance party. He just as quickly felt the impact of oxygen scarcity on his ability to bust moves. Two other trekkers taught us a silly dance from China that had us all buckling under hypoxia. Since no foreigner could keep up with the Sherpa among us, what grew into a party diminished into a gathering again after midnight. The merriment had silenced the doubts, and I fell asleep wrapped up in elation. It only took until 2075, but these kind of maneuvers through time and space rendered all shortcomings fleeting.
Between leaving behind the crew in Namche and the first pass, the trail was obvious and people were dispersed all along the way. The skies beamed upon me. I spent many unencumbered days dazzled by the pyramid peak of Everest at every turn. But, a lot of credit in those first days goes to my most constant trekking companion, Ama Dablam. Like the other giants, she is made of granitoid speckled like salt and pepper. But she is the most beautiful mountain I have ever seen. Her long ridges are known as protective arms and the hanging glacier on her face a representation of the pendants, dablam, traditionally worn by Sherpa mothers, ama, of this region. Whenever my shoulders sagged, she beckoned me forward by exuding unfaltering strength and poise.
Later, I met Iswer, and we walked some stretches together. But he soon came down with a headache and disorientation. Trained as a medical doctor, Iswer decided to err on the side of caution. He turned around to spend additional days at lower altitude, and I didn’t see him again.
The dawn of the day of the first pass, Kongma La, I slid out of my warm cocoon in the village of Chukkung like any other day at altitude driven by the promise of adventure. But grogginess was replaced with contempt when standing up brought forth a searing sting that drove into my distal right foot. I sank back down. This phantom of the past was either here to remind me of existing deficiencies or warn against worse. And frankly, at this point, I was personally insulted. Grinding my teeth, I yanked the laces of my boots extra tight. After stalking into the tearoom as if I could stomp the fear out before it took root, I devoured a big bowl of oatmeal in pointed determination.
A top Kongma La Pass, the wind whisked away the clouds. In the passing, a wide space opened before me. The sun hit just right. Lhotse (27,940 feet, the world’s fourth tallest mountain), Makalu (27,825 feet, the fifth tallest mountain), Lhotse Shar, and Ama Dablam starred in the performance above a glacial landscape complete with sapphire lakes. Taking it all in, satisfaction came from the awe. Everything was bright, fresh, flawless.
It took the rest of the day to descend upon Pumori and cut through the debris-mantled tongue of of the Khumbu Glacier. I arrived at the village of Lobuche, where the Three Passes circuit joins up with the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trail. This was the opportunity to take a detour up to EBC. That night in Lobuche, Inbar, Yarelle, and Nima, whom I had played tag with every day, and I sat around a yak dung stove waiting to thaw out. Fighting fatigue and altitude induced headache, Yarelle filled her lungs. She exhaled for all of us, in song, with the entirety of “Love on the Brain.”
Climbing season turned the base of the Khumbu Icefall into a hive of nylon taffeta. The glacier slid slow and encumbered. Occasionally, I heard the boom of ice snapping in the distance or beneath me. Snaking through the maze of tents at EBC, I looked for Tom and his expedition. I had met Tom one night at the start of the trek, and he had offered an invitation for tea anytime.
Weary of the dehydrating effects of caffeine, Tom served up hot, powdered, purple, juice drink. Other members of his expedition filtered in and out of the meal tent. Most talk revealed that their thoughts were with their family and friends wherever home was. Days acclimatizing at base camp are agonizingly draining, empty, and cold. Relief comes from being so lucky to relax and regular enough to visit a pit in the glacier. In this environment not suitable for humans, all just want to get on with it—go up and down as quickly as possible.
Any sense of grandiosity was absent. No one boasted as the mountain loomed before them. It would be an uphill battle through ice pinnacles, crevasses, and avalanche territory to the top of the world in hopes of finding clarity and separation from the mundane melodramas that make up life. Mt. Everest, for more noble motives, is attractive in that it forces all who attempt its slopes to feel viscerally vulnerable in their palpable mortality. If one emerges with their wits still intact, one is somehow greater for it. But that doesn’t mean that this place is untouched by vanity. They pray that after shelling out $40K for entry onto a frozen line on Everest, their camera won’t malfunction when they get to the tippy-top.
Stepping out of the meal tent, I looked anxiously up at the sky as a strong shift in the wind numbed my neck and wrists. I would need to leave EBC soon to make it back to a lodge before evening. But the smell of burning juniper and the hum of chanting sparked my curiosity. Crowds were huddled around makeshift stupas all day as a lama (buddhist monk) blessed those going up the following day. A dainty, red string was tied around each climber’s neck for protection. The Nepalis ask Miyolangsangma, the goddess of Everest who rides a golden tigress and grants wishes to the deserving, to forgive them for trespassing. A big bowl of popcorn is passed around and ladles of chhaang are sipped. After the lama’s blessing, the ceremony is sustained through dance. At 17,600 feet, dancing is difficult to say the least, but the Sherpa who dance are unencumbered. And for a little bit, me as well. In between the significance and insignificance of the present is a whole lot of wonder.
The next morning, I awoke at Gorak Shep late. I was tired, and it was an additional 1,500 foot climb to the summit of Kala Pattar (18, 514 feet) before backtracking to rejoin the Three Passes Circuit. On the EBC trail, the view a top Kala Pattar is the best look at Everest, the surrounding giants, and the sweeping Khumbu glacier. But Kala Pattar, meaning “black rock” looks like a tiny dropping against this scenery. It’s a joke, and the Nepalese don’t even consider it a mountain.
Still, I found myself repeating “mind over matter” like a mantra for the strength to summit. The entire time, I was disassociating. The view at the top was overwhelming and impressive, but it was not from being starstruck. It was airless. I had a suspicion that I had lost my cool when I couldn’t retrace my steps down. I ended up stumbling on ledges where a misstep would be fatal. Unnerved, I climbed back to the summit in hopes of following someone down. But it was too late in the day, and there was no one up there. I tried looking for the trail again. In finding it, I high tailed to lower elevation with tunnel vision. Gorak Shep was a blur. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t think. Gorak Shep consisted of something like four lodges and nothing else, yet I couldn’t recall or find the lodge where I left my pack. I was spinning as I walked into all the lodges and none of them appeared right. Finally, unable to speak, I pulled my room key out at someone who then pointed at the building next to me. I downed a liter of water and sound returned to my ears. It wasn’t until after I recognized some familiar faces that my heart finally stopped jumping up my throat.
In the sleepy hamlet of Dugla (15,157 feet), the fright of the morning was almost entirely left behind. Grudgingly, I admitted that I should not let that happen again. Kala Pattar, that little black bump and mopey shadow of a thing, had sent me scurrying. Fresh off that incident, tomorrow was supposedly the most challenging day of them all. I was to cross Cho La Pass. One day, I will listen to my gut and back down, but apparently, now would not be that. I was far too proud. Nothing to see here but me once again falling for the fanciful trap that the true measure of adventure is how I succeed, or better yet barely survive, in the face of voluntary adversity.
A day after crossing Cho La, I arrived at Gokyo Lake. Gokyo was so beautiful it was brutal. Up here, I felt a sense of unfinished business. Still, I was cold and numb and tired and moving forward was all I could do. Stopping would mean dying. I’d forgotten how to stop. Maybe it was because I knew that my joints could stiffen and my muscles could give up. I could succumb to total lack of stamina and double back on that original goal. And how terrifying would it be after setting out, coming this far, to realize that the objective came from a horrifically, uninformed place? The destination would not simply be not guaranteed but also false. So, to bypass this meditation, I had programmed an automatic one reaction to anything. Just keep going. Even if the mere thought of another day of walking was exhausting, I just kept going.
With the second and most onerous of the passes behind me and having been slighted by Kala Pattar to no avail, I was, nonetheless, cruising. I began Renjo La later than expected, and, upon reaching the pass, I stared for too long. Nostalgia grew as I wondered when, if ever, I would look upon this epic landscape again. I breathed in fear that these intensely beautiful moments were stolen and fleeting. But then the enormity of the world and of the tasks ahead took hold, and I felt a timelessness echoed by the mountains I was among.
A long way from anywhere, it was refreshing to feel deeply connected. The spread was grand. From here the hanging glaciers flowed into lunging rivers that opened into green foothills to continue as meanders through the relative lowlands in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indus River valley and Indian subcontinent. Somewhere to the west, beyond the snow capped horizon, was my home for most of my formative years. I stood oceans away from a different life. Now I was a spec in the Great Himalayas. Was I like the mountains rising, rising, rising until gravity initiated the first rupture in a change of course that would mean growing sideways thereafter? Suddenly, in my smallness and surrounded by every piece of land and all its inhabitants, I felt a sense of ineffable purpose.
I demanded out loud, “Do you see me?!”
Yet, no eyes were on me. Except my own.
Early in the afternoon, the clouds began to roll in from the distance. I snapped out of the ruminations. There was still a long way down to Lungden (14,370 feet), and I had no idea if the trail from here on out was any good. The icy, snow covered slope glistened sharp in the sun. I stayed low for a few hundred meters waddling with bent knees. One foot at a time. And, often, one palm on the ground.
When the slope permitted, I began going as fast as my worn legs could carry me. As the skies sucked away the light, it took all that was easy going with it. An eerie sensation was creeping in. I was aware of a Norwegian couple on the trail about 15 minutes in front of me. And a few more unfortunate behind me --maybe 20 minutes. But darn it, I had stayed up there too long. I desperately tried to catch up with the couple, but they too were racing the clouds. Their red and purple jackets were an occasional flash in the distance. None of us were fast enough though, and in the horror of the entombing gray, my vision began to fill with snow.
Wired, I knew that the worst thing I could do for myself was freak out. But now, I began to feel acutely aware of mental and physical fatigue, dehydration, and hunger. I came down the pass too fast, and AMS symptoms from Kala Pattar were resurfacing. With the sun gone, the temperature slipped from hovering at 30° F to 15° F. The wind picked up, and the howling was all that accompanied the growing static buzz in my ears.
The footpath, sometimes loose dirt other times boulder field, looked much like everything around it. Raw instinct had me focused on not losing sight of the way right below my feet. The snow had swiftly homogenized the landscape and shrouded the towering giants above.
Somehow I found myself planted squarely on a promontory. The sea of white was bottomless on three sides, and I had no sense of which way to go if I turned around. Blinking, I tried to make out the outline of anything at all. But the more I looked the more everything reflected off each other until all I could see was a kaleidoscope.
I was alone out in nondescript white space at sub 16,000 feet, completely lost.
Swallowing, I felt the saliva inch into my navel. My pack had a sleeping bag, a sad half liter of water, and no food. These were not the reserves to weather out a storm. Weeks at altitude had robbed me of sleep and nourishment, stretching my common sense. I needed an out. Bracing against the sound of my own voice, I yelled into the abyss a harrowing, “HELLOOOOOOOOO?”
Again, “Hello? Hellooo? HELLLOOOOO? Hello?”
The abyss did not respond. It had swallowed everything whole, absently collecting, and growing bigger and bigger at every moment. I tried to turn away from it. But there was nowhere to turn. The silence was deafening. I called out more.
“Hello, is anyone there?!”
Hoarse and cracked, my voice withered until I had no control over it either. Unable to make any more sound, I stood in silence aware of my breath composed like the abyss.
There’s this idea that if one does everything right, always choosing the higher path and always working hard, one gets what they desire. But that is not always the case. Sometimes, what one gets is unexpected—not at all what one signs up for. And that is something that can be hard to grapple with. After weathering the storm, I sprinted to the refuge of Namche.
Not having bathed in weeks, I booked a room explicitly promising a hot shower. I immediately started running the water as I stripped. Then startled, I caught someone staring intently, piercingly, at me. It was a feral child. Curious. Detached. Impressionable. Ready for the world to suddenly make sense or flip upside down. Those eyes were mine. And the water never warmed up. The ice pelted me. It was here, cornered against a line of broken tiles, that I shook with rage.
Two days were spent in search of the enlightened Charok Ani who resides in a monastic cave, the hermitage of the Lawudo Lama Rinpoche. The cave was empty. But right outside, there was a hut. Inside, it was warm. An older woman was relaxed but in high spirit. She made humorous conversation and good food. At the end of two nights, a teensy bit disappointed to not have absorbed wisdom from the Charok Ani (but refreshed nonetheless) the cave was left behind. It wasn’t until completely descending the mountain was it clear that the woman was in fact the Ani all along.
Finally, back in Kathmandu Valley on the day of Buddha’s birthday, the flowing procession circumambulating the Boudhanath Stupa twinkled luminously. Two Canadians, a computer programmer whose bloodlines were in Sri Lanka and the other an ultra-marathon runner with a badly sunburnt nose, and I had spent hours doubled over in the kind of laughter that was insuppressible and all consuming. From our delirious display, far too excessive for the occasion, we thought we had lost our minds. With damp eyelids we made prophetic musings, yet they were all wise cracks.
Air, once so incredibly scarce, was abundant. But, we had trouble working with the miraculous substance. Smushing our mouths shut, we tried to breath. Instead, drool tipped out. Our diaphragms kept on heaving big bellyfuls of laughter. Soon enough, we couldn’t trace the source of our happiness for happiness had become an acknowledgement of all things. We were high; but, nothing here needed to be contrived or supplemented. It was lively enough.
Mine were omnipresent eyes, and in that moment the world was so perfectly plain and obvious. To laugh was the only thing I could do. I was renewed, full, tender, but I could not stop laughing.
In these parts, people call this the crazy wisdom of being freed.
I hope this will be a triumph that will outlive today.